Climate-Wise: Why Environment Is Not a Side Issue

David B Young via flickr // CC 2.0

The accusations made by Greta Thunberg at the UN summit aimed at the attendees were merited. What the contemporary leaders and average people lack is not knowledge but wisdom.

We have created a world based on a premise that humanity and nature are separate entities. The spaces we inhabit contribute to the illusion of humans having tamed the later. It has been we, the humans, who have introduced order, regulated and constrained the harsh environment, utilizing it for our own benefits, right?

This belief that homo sapiens rules over nature is typical not only of the ideology according to which the Earth is our subject, but also of a narrative stating that preserving natural environment is left up to us, inhabitants of the planet.

Ancient Greeks referred to such conceit and insolence as hybris – after all, the Blue Planet, for which we have only warm feelings, is capable of destroying the entire humanity at one fell swoop.

Yet, the next mass extinction event is knocking on our door, and destroying the balance of the planet may bring it about faster than anyone has thought it possible.

This divide may be observed both at the macro and micro level, and everywhere in between. Biosphere and climate – living things and inanimate objects – must compete for attention with every topic and pseudo-topic generated by human culture and civilization. We are the champions of compartmentalizing, ignoring, and erasing things from memory.

Politicians would rather deal with banal issues, focused only on securing enough voter support. Citizens are often preoccupied with their own problems. Media report on everything and nothing at the same time.

Ecology-related issues constitute one of many we encounter on a daily basis. To make it easier to identify them, they are often labelled in a particular manner – some audiences will be attracted by it, others discouraged.

Environmental sections are notoriously featured in many print and online media, as if being a mere side topic to the main news sections.

In such a manner present it also those media outlets that ferociously advocate for nature protection – The Guardian being an infamous example. Needless to say, many mainstream media do not even bother to treat climate change as a valid topic.

Until recently, I myself have also believed that such slogans are a good solution. But I do not anymore, and they probably never were one.

We have only just begun to accelerate in our environmental efforts to contain the catastrophy, while we should already operate at full speed.

The inertia of political systems, profit-oriented activities of market players, lack of a go-ahead attitude among scientists, shortsightedness of the media, and weak psyche of all humans – all this undoubtedly contributes to the inadequacy of our efforts to counteract climate change so far.

There is, however, one more reason that might explain our ineptness. As reported by George Marshall in his book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, in 1977, Sheldon Kinsel, a lawyer cooperating with a US wildlife protection organization, in an address at the US Congress talked about climate change (back then, referred to by Kinsel as climate shift) as an “environmental issue” that topples all others.

Marshall pointed out that at that time the challenge that would require cooperation on an unprecedented scale was unanimously deemed as a solely environmental issue. What, actually, was welcomed by all sides of the debate: pro-environmental organizations enriched their thematic arsenal, whereas the authorities, business, and media could put the issue aside for the time being as a topic “for a later date”, while focusing on “more important things”.

This is how a problem that poses a threat to the very foundations of everything we have created as humanity was given a convenient label and fell prey to people’s tendency to compartmentalize, ignore, and erase from memory.

Currently, the climate change and environmental crisis for many people constitutes a matter of a particular branch of scientific knowledge – an important branch, true, but only one among many others. As a result, the scope of its impact is perceived as limited to the strictly scientific matters, and as such, commonly viewed as abstract, not reflected in real life.

Even the terminology itself – academic, analytical, almost clinical – only further assists in pushing the topic deeper into the ignored compartment. This is why the recent attempts of some media outlets (like these of The Guardian) to adapt the employed discourse to the situation we now face are of utmost importance.

Sadly, these efforts came a little too late – had we talked and thought about climate change in this manner from the start, everything could have looked differently right now, and Greta Thunberg and her peers would not have to fear for their future and take the responsibility for fighting an uneven battle with the dire consequences of the inaction of the previous generations.

Instead of talking about climate and environment in the categories of knowledge, we should realize that it is more about wisdom.

Wisdom that stems from understanding the place humans hold in nature and the other way around. Wisdom based on acknowledging that people affect climate, and that climate affects people. And a kind of wisdom that comes from realizing that our very existence on this planet depends on having a planet to inhabit – not the other way around.

Environment is not a “side topic” to more pressing issues. It is people who are an addition to the life on the Earth – a planet that does not need us. We are neither a separate entity, nor the crowning jewel of creation.

Today, life wisdom is about understanding the very meaning of our life: we are running through a cosmic void, holding onto a wild beast that may at any time throw us back into space if we fail to stop kicking it.

We have destroyed quite a lot already. We are still capable of destroying much more. But if by doing so we also destroy ourselves, then what will be left after this whole Anthropocene will be only a tiny stratigraphic layer, which nobody will be even capable of deciphering.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz

Dawid Juraszek